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A Food and Wine Crawl Through Spain’s Rías Baixas

Spain's Rías Baixas has long been influenced by its proximity to the sea, and its wines are no exception. Here, a visual tour of the region, where tradition, and albariño, reign supreme.

Among the first things you’ll notice in Rías Baixas, a small, winemaking region tucked inside Spain’s Galicia, are the clock-like rhythms of the water. On a recent morning in the coastal town of O Grove, the local estuary was so shallow and empty that its sandy soils, slick with moisture, were as reflective as glass. It’s hard to imagine that just hours before, that same bed had been at high tide, deep and capped by waves barreling in from the Atlantic.

Unlike much of Spain, which borders on the Mediterranean Sea, Rías Baixas (and all of Galicia, for that matter) is marked by a unique, maritime climate—a detail perhaps most evident in the local fishing villages. There, the ebbs of the ocean have provided something of an industrial lifeblood for centuries; even today, in the neighborhood of San Tomé, receding waters bring dozens of women (known as mariscadoras) out into the shoals each day to dig for shellfish by hand—just as they did generations ago.

Despite modern innovations, these sorts of traditions persist throughout Rías Baixas, in the language (Galician), the architecture and, notably, in the region’s deeply ingrained culture of food and drink. It’s easy to eat local here: the many varieties of Galician shellfish (langoustine, lobster, those painstakingly fresh clams) are widely regarded as some of the best in Spain, and have historically proved a match for the region’s crisp, minerally albariño. Of the 12 grape varieties permitted by the Rías Baixas D.O., this indigenous white varietal accounts for 96 percent of plantings.

Consequently, nearly all of the wineries across the five sub-zones (most famously, Val do Salnés in the north, and O Rosal and Condado do Tea, which lie south along the Miño river) are best known for their flagship albariño-based white wines. In keeping with historical precedent, these are typically made from grapes grown en parra—on extended, rectangular canopies—which allows air to circulate around the fruit, protecting it from rot (something that’s long been a hazard in the region’s unusually humid microclimates).

Though most wineries hew close to tradition, many are innovating, too. In O Rosal, for example, winery Altos de Torona bottles small quantities of sparkling albariño; while in nearby Condado do Tea, La Val winemaker Chema Ureta produces especially lush, still expressions of the grape by employing an unconventional lees-aging technique (wherein single vintage wines are aged with lees from three separate years). Other wineries, meanwhile, are offering an increasing number of single-varietal wines made from plantings of finicky caiño blanco (a passion at Terras Gauda) and loureiro—an especially floral, fragrant grape named for “laurel,” or bay leaf—at Adegas Valmiñor.

Nevertheless, winemakers here are careful to maintain their wines’ sense of place; the best examples reflect the region’s granitic and mineral-rich soils, and its ample sunshine. Pair them alongside local specialties—grilled razor clams, steamed goose barnacles and scallops served in their shells, to name a few—and it’s easy to see why Rías Baixas remains so keen on sustaining, and further cultivating, its long-held traditions.

Here, a look at the region, its deep-rooted culture of wine and food and the people who shape it.

A Tour of Albariño Country